I wrote last October extolling Lisette as one of the finest younger poets writing at the moment and I’ve now bought ‘Teens’ from Mountain Press which collects most of her stuff in one place. A fortnight ago I read something about Julian Barnes in one of the lit. comics which ventured the view that the English literary novel can be read as a series of disappointingly rainy afternoons. It might not have said that but that’s what I wanted it to say. Since then I’ve been overly occupied thinking about the world of the innovative English poem and this has revealed that this line of thought ‘works’ with regard to some individual poets but not with others and the reason for this split isn’t altogether clear.
Francesca Lisette’s work does (for this reader any way) contain a defined world and I’d like to spend some time thinking about what this might look like. I’d also like to stress that this isn’t about ‘themes’ in that it’s not so much what people write about or even the way that they write but much more about the place that they write from which in turn isn’t about influences or personal background. Before getting myself into deeper abstraction, I’ll proceed by example.
Just as the literary English novel comes from a world of bourgeois disappointment and rain in the afternoon, Lisette’s work can be thought of as coming from the body or bodies. I’ve said before that Lisette’s tone is of ragged defiance and there’s more than a little of this in the way that bodies are in the work. Although Lisette’s poetry is both dense and oblique (withdrawn) these bodies bring something tangible to the readerly experience which works in a number of ways. This is from ‘Cite College Remix’:
exudes a velveteen primp icon
nesting in teeth and tongue. frilly gangblast
rocks censored gash: rhododendron witness
twitters off kerbline, covers for a threaded agent
not allowing crystal layby
scoop organ mesh.
no matter how much blue
tears //into the jargon that sleeps in your body
(Lisette doesn’t do capital letters at the start of a sentence, she does full stops but not capitals)
I think it’s entirely reasonable to assume that this is not a poem about bodies but that the body and body parts are used as a kind of grounding, as a counter to the juxtaposed abstraction that makes up the poem’s subject(s).
By way of further illustration these extracts are from ‘Preface’
educated hordes sustain a wiped gob
- corn, grated in th'umbrous bowels
mirror sips flesh atop the pale flight of stairs
‘Preface isn’t a poem ‘about’ bodies but it might be a poem that makes use of the flesh and fleshy things as an undercurrent. Incidentally, I’d much prefer it if ‘umbrous’ had this definition from 1481 “He was umbrouse or shadewous, that is to saye he was colde and refrigerat fro all concupyscence of the flesshe” which seems much more fitting than its primary definition.
There are very few poems in this collection that don’t have bodies or bits of bodies in them and this brings me to think about the place that this stuff might come from. It occurs to me that young children have an unfettered and uninhibited interest in their own bodies until what we call socialisation and this ‘fits’ more than the obvious butcher / operating table / morgue places. I don’t however think this childish place is altogether happy, there’s too much violence in the work for that.
I now want to turn to the use of ‘ash’. I’m of the view that this is a word that needs to be treated with immense care in the wake of Celan’s ‘Aschenglorie’. This might be a personal foible but I can make a case for that poem’s insistence on care and precision. This is from ‘What Continues’-
all festooned where half-fashioned
rooves have crept: mantra dies off
in the bed of living up we rose
caulked and feckless, brimming over with ash we die
and knit itches into permanence
bloody hurricane fighting brow
Before proceeding, I want to note the brilliance of ‘caulked and feckless’ which must rank alongside ‘relinquish flounce’ as proof of Lisette’s invention and skill. It’s not entirely clear that our death occurs because we are brimming over with ash but I’ll take this to be the case, our bodies are filled (to the brim) with ash and we die because everything is blocked up. ‘Permanence’ relates to something that doesn’t die and we, the dead, tie itches or irritation into it. This is very strong stuff and does treat ‘ash’ with the care that it deserves.
This is the start of ‘Flesh Elect’-
Roll river bank cyclical lumped ash welts
smearing the city's
clicks and the hand glows
This is one of the angriest and ‘raggedly defiant’ poems in the book and it’s about shopping, the idiocies of retail, the stupidity of the consumer and the violence we do to ourselves-
The shade to be seen
asphyxiating your gullet with."
I’m not sure about ‘lumped ash welts’ but I think that can recognise the connotations that are being reached for. As with ‘What Continues’ the word is being used to suggest some kind of defilement but I don’t think a welt constructed from ash works as well as it reads.
This final example is from the third ‘Patient’ poem in the ‘Casebook’ sequence:
leads lose or abdicate expression 4am ash-light pours over you in cast metal
breather have you in tragic motion oder starred denial unchangeable ridge
The ash here could be cigarette ash but I prefer to think of it as approximating Celan’s use, I think the notion of the light from the ash being poured (or pouring itself) over someone particularly strong. This particular sequence is deeply political and the second ‘Patient’ poem is the best in a very impressive collection.
So, does any of this indicate a world? For me, this is a very urban world that exists in almost permanent night and continues to dance around the threat of crisis. The nearest I can get to it from my experience is central London in 1973/4 with bombing campaigns, strikes, and the strong stench of corruption. The all night cafes where you could plot the revolution and it all seemed….. feasible.